January 27, 2021

Ancient-Future Faith (4): Worship in a Postmodern World

af worship sketch

As a young student in Bible college, newly awakened by the Spirit and called to pastoral ministry, I never had a single class on the subject of worship. So when I graduated and went into my first church armed with a guitar and accompanied by a wife who played the piano, we did what we knew. We sang the “old hymns” — and by that I mean the gospel hymns our little Baptist church had always sung. We also introduced them to “Jesus music” — mostly praise and scripture choruses from Maranatha and some of the early proponents of Contemporary Christian Music. The structure of our services was standard for churches like ours. We sang, we took an offering, sometimes we had a Bible reading (most often the text of the sermon), we sometimes had testimonies, there was a pastoral prayer and special music performed by the choir and/or a soloist or ensemble. The focus was on the message, with the other aspects either understood as “preliminaries” designed to open our hearts to hear the Word preached, or as some sort of “response” calling for various types of commitment.

While we were serving that little church in New England, we went to some conferences at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA, where Gordon MacDonald was the senior pastor. Their worship was robust and traditional and formal in style. It included more liturgical elements and a sense of high seriousness that our smaller church could not imitate. Our architecture, facilities, musical talent, and size led naturally to more informality and an atmosphere of family fellowship rather than transcendence. At one of the conferences, I took a workshop on worship, the first time I had heard a serious presentation on the subject. I was transfixed. The speaker invoked the name “Robert Webber” in his presentation, and I was treated to a new perspective on worship that was biblically, historically, and theologically rich. This young pastor had walked through a door into a new world.

A few years later, after I had returned to seminary, the presenter of that workshop and another professor combined to teach a more comprehensive class on worship at Trinity. I signed up right away. I was reading Webber’s books as well as others, and my understanding and interest in the subject grew.

Stop and think about this for a moment: it took ten years, including five years in actual pastoral ministry, until this evangelical minister received education and inspiration on the subject of worship!

Now, I find this admission remarkable and incredibly sad. The attitude of my evangelical educators was that nearly two thousand years of church practice basically didn’t exist, or at least was not relevant for someone like me going into pastoral ministry. My job was to study and teach the Word. Everything else was secondary. In my world, “worship” basically meant we had to put up with singing a few songs so that we could get to the main event, the sermon.

In my experience, not much has changed in the evangelical world, at least at its core. Oh sure, we have invented a whole new category of ministry — “worship leader” — and the “worship set” has become a more prominent part of the service. We talk a lot about worship. For years now, artists have been putting out “praise and worship” music. Many churches sing a lot more, and worship leaders and planners have developed philosophies about the trajectory that those singing times should take to achieve maximum impact on the congregation, but in reality, evangelicalism still reflects and serves the “revivalist” order of Preliminaries/Sermon/Response. It’s still all about the sermon in the end, and the only real difference between churches is whether the particular congregation puts its emphasis on teaching or on preaching for decision.

And Robert Webber continues to speak to me.

The content of worship is a rehearsal of the covenantal relationship God has established with Israel and the church. For example, at Mount Sinai God entered into a covenantal relationship with Israel, sealed with his blood. They became “a people holy to the Lord . . . chosen . . . to be his people” (Deut. 7:6). The Lord became Israel’s God and Israel became God’s special people. And in this relationship there emerged tangible signs of that union — the sanctuary, the priesthood, the offerings, and the appointed feasts and seasons. In this way Israel’s worship looked back to the exodus event and forward to the promised land. In the New Testament there is another covenant, sealed with the blood of Christ, through which the church becomes Christ’s peculiar possession, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Peter 2:9). This new relationship is the body — the body of Christ, an extension of the incarnation, the continued presence of Christ on earth, a divine organism inhabited by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In the church, his body, there are tangible signs of the presence of Christ in worship — the assembled people, the Word, the sacraments, ministry, fellowship, discipleship, prayer, and love. All these expressions of worship look back to the Christ event and forward to the new heavens and the new earth.

In sum, the content and meaning of classical worship tells and acts out the story of God’s saving work in history, culminating in the work of Christ to overthrow the powers of evil and to ultimately establish his kingdom over creation. This story is in our hymns and songs, in our prayers and testimonies, and, supremely, in the reading of Scripture, preaching, and the Eucharist.

– p. 103f

In Ancient-Future Faith, Webber repeats themes for which he is well known. After urging a recovery of the theology of worship that is seen in the quote above, he encourages churches to recover the order of worship, as described in Acts 2:42, worship that is organized around the two pillars of Word and Table.

Then, sincedesign9cross this book focuses on the postmodern context of our faith and practice, Webber speaks to the need to restore a balance between the rationalistic, conceptual forms of communication which have dominated much Protestant and evangelical worship since the Enlightenment and symbolic forms which stimulate the imagination and restore a sense of mystery to our worship. He lists seven examples where symbolism and symbolic actions should be strengthened:

  • In our worship spaces
  • In the order of our worship
  • In our worship music
  • In restoring the divine symbolism of baptism
  • In restoring an understanding of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist
  • In restoring observance of the church year
  • In a renewed emphasis on the arts in worship

These are subjects we have considered and will continue to discuss here on Internet Monk. I owe Robert Webber a debt of gratitude I can never repay for introducing me to the primary practice of the church, a practice that few of my other teachers appreciated or thought important enough to pass on.


  1. Robert F says

    I’m reading a book by N.T. Wright titled Simply Christian. In one of the chapters, Wright says that the primary activity of worship is, not the sermon, not the singing, not the prayer, not even the sacraments, but the reading of and listening to Scripture together in the context of the liturgy. He says that it is in this way that the great acts of God are rehearsed, that it is in this way that we come to know who God is, and from this all other elements in the liturgy took shape and take their inspiration. So he places great emphasis and weight on the Word, but in a very different way from your evangelical background, CM.

    • I find that in liturgical worship there is more Bible read and a consistent presentation of the Good News which I never experienced in my years of low church experience.

      • My experience has been just the opposite. Liturgical services may ( at times) read more scripture but appear to give less weight to the words of Scripture found in my ‘low church” where the Word is unfolded word by word, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, book by book.

        • I do miss good expository preaching. The liturgical tradition does allow for that, as examples from Luther to John Stott show. If I were pastoring, I probably would aim for a combination of lectionary preaching and expository series on biblical books or sections.

          • David Cornwell says

            The problem is this: Luther and Stott are the exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to expository preaching. Listen to this kind of preaching very long, and it is easy to see that most preachers come to different conclusions about the text being expounded.

            David Fitch talks about this is in some of his writings. This kind of preaching claims to be the result of a “single original intended, propositional meaning.” Arriving at this kind of meaning, in the end, is almost impossible. Fitch has entire chapter entitled “The Preaching of the Word; The Myth of Expository Preaching: Why We Must Do More Than Wear Scrolls on Our Foreheads.”

            However I do think there should be ways of breaking out of lectionary preaching for a period of time.

          • We get both in our church (LCMS). I have experienced both kinds of preaching; both have advantages, and both have concerns. In my experience with numerous reformed baptist churches my biggest concerns with expositional preaching are as follows: 1) Appeal to the intellect. I have seen this destroy young men who were interested in the ministry and ended up letting their ego essentially disqualify them from the ministry. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2) I do not remember hearing a single “expositional” sermon where the teacher’s exegesis did not line up with what he already believed; this leads me to suspect that most expositional preaching is more about exposing the beliefs of the teacher than the purpose of the text. 3) It is interesting to note that there aren’t any expository sermons recorded in the new testament. The sermons that are recorded – including the entire book of Hebrews – seem to fall more under the heading of topical.

            All that to say that I do not believe there is a “silver bullet” where if we just did preaching a certain way, we would get good results. I suppose this is just another way of admitting the relational nature of pastoring and discipleship.

          • Robert F says

            ” I do not remember hearing a single ‘expositional’ sermon where the teacher’s exegesis did not line up with what he already believed; this leads me to suspect that most expositional preaching is more about exposing the beliefs of the teacher than the purpose of the text.”

            Which means that the sermon preached is based on eisegesis, not exegesis, of the text. That’s been my experience, too, in listening to expository preaching, though my exposure to expository preaching has been, admittedly, far less than many commentators here at iMonk.

          • I think you all would truly enjoy a message I found free on the web by one a leading linguistics professor from Cambridge who later went into a teachers ministry. His name was dereck prince-I think he has another version on you tube it is Derek Prince – Thanksgiving, Praise & Worship
            as to time in the Word that is definatly an issue today as solid teaching upon the foundational doctrines listed as the milk of the Word the cross we where to pick up and the Spirit led Life is sadly lacking and people are being blown about by all sorts of doctrine.

        • Having attended many churches, representing all spectrums of Christianity, over more than 60 years, I have to agree with Seneca. Verses read, often in a monotone, individually without the context from which they were wrenched, seem much easier to ignore, they become just part of the ambient ‘background noise’….that so often make up the trappings of ‘religious practice’.

          • Ah, but Waltg, if you’ve ever heard scripture read well, it is revelatory. Better than most preaching.

          • As a very traditional parish, we use an edition of the Book of Common Prayer that is still in Tudor English, and the Pulpit Bible we use in the reading of the Scriptures is a big ol’ KJV. One of the things that has always impressed me about our parish is that the rector has trained all of our lay readers to read well, despite the archaic English. I find that makes the archaic English come alive in a way that doesn’t often happen in other parishes I’ve visited, even when they read from more modern and understanding translations.

            They were all trained before I was hired on; I really need to find out how these folks were trained so that I can make sure it continues in future generations.

        • I’m sure that mileage varies upon location and perhaps the Episcopal congregation I attend with has above average Rector’s/priest. I have yet to hear a “bum” homily, which homily is always relevant to the Lectionary readings.

          My experience (50+ years) with “expository” preaching has not left me with a greater understanding and love for Father, rather it has been mostly training in mind games and argumentation.

        • Clay Crouch says

          Did you come from a liturgical background? Just how often have you worshiped in a liturgical setting?

    • I like that, Robert. Scripture reading in the context of the liturgy. That way, whatever is read is heard in the context of Christ, whose story is portrayed in the liturgy.

      • Robert F says

        CM, I went back and re-read that chapter in Wright’s book. He emphasizes that the liturgy is a kind of showcase for Scripture, a carefully crafted showcase meant to provide windows into the sacred narrative and to allow us to look into all these myriad windows. The sermon, the music, the prayers, the liturgical calendar, all the elements of liturgy exist for us to listen to and respond to Scripture as it speaks to us together.

        Paradoxically, this carefully crafted showcase is the format in which Scripture is most freed to speak for itself. Rather than depending on the interpretative acuity of the preacher, which may be greater or less on any given day for any given preacher, the liturgy puts the Scripture in the framework of meaning that the church has gradually grown into over the course of its history and experience.

        One thing I got wrong: Wright gives a higher priority to the sacraments than I had said in my first comment, making reading/listening to Scripture and the sacraments the twin, complementary activities for all true Christian worship.

        • David Cornwell says

          “the liturgy puts the Scripture in the framework of meaning that the church has gradually grown into over the course of its history and experience.”

          Which is as it should be.

    • Steve Newell says

      In the two LCMS churches that I have been member of, the bible verses that are used in the liturgy are included. In addition, the scripture references for the hymns sung are included as well. When you include the fact at we have four readings (Psalm, OT, NT and Gospel), we are getting a lot of scripture throughout worship. Even if the sermon is not all that good, we are still getting a lot of scripture.

      As growing up Baptist, it was the sermon is when we had a direct reading of scripture and it was the subject of the sermon. There was usually not additional readings and the hymns did not list the scriptures that it was applicable too.

  2. Thank you from the deepest parts of my heart for taking the time and effort to write out these posts on the ancient-future faith. Robert Webber has been one of the key influences in the shaping of my ecclesiology, at least the version I hunger for and I am drawn to… There are so many thoughts and words that are in my mind that I cannot find the clarity to write them out. Just, thank you for writing this series. The past several years of my ministry have been among the loneliest years of my life and I have found communicating my heart to folks has been incredibly frustrating as I am almost always misunderstood. I’m hopeful your writing here will be helpful in clarifying some of what I have failed to articulate regarding the longings of my own soul.

  3. Patricia says

    Growing up in a “low” evangelical church I was amazed by how my spirit was moved when I attended a liturgical service with my new husband’s family.It was so rich in the Scripture that I knew from years of Sunday School. However, watching those around me and the family I had married into, it became obvious that their participation in the liturgy was perfunctory – a knee jerk reaction at best. There was no ardor or passion in their voices as the Word was spoken back to the Giver. So why was my heart ready to burst? What was lacking at my low church experience that did not evoke my response to liturgical worship?

    Today we attend a very contemporary church where “worship” is ripe with sights and sounds. Choreographed visuals and a fog machine no less accompany the music designed to lead us into the meat of the message. while the goal is to clearly present the Gospel, I am put off by the slick programming.

    Although I enjoy being in the fellowship of the saints and learn much from the preaching/teaching that takes place on Sunday, I think I worship God more in the solitude and silence of my own home. I think I hear Him more clearly here too as there are not as many distractions in this setting as opposed to the cacophony of the church house.

    Isn’t “worship” a response to anything that causes us to recognize or become aware of the holy presence of God? Therefore, our “worship” is not confined to singing, or even observing the Eucharist within the four walls of a church building. God doesn’t live in structures built by human hands; He dwells within you, within me . . . amazing grace; a holy privilege to have this Treasure in such a weak, broken vessel.

    • Patricia
      So much of what you wrote strikes a chord within my OWN soul. While I have no love for ‘fog machines’…is that so much different than ornate robes, head dresses, bells, smells, etc, that make up so much of the trappings of ‘liturgical’ churches? It’s ALL just window-dressing!
      As to the rest….Absolutely! Most of what little I’ve learned…has been from private discussion (or public), and personal study…and NOT from a 30 minute (or less) sermon that might touch on several verses (or not), a few anecdotes, and a lot of verbiage in between. likewise my most moving experience of the transcendence of God…has happened while sitting by the ocean, walking through a forest of 500+ year old trees, walking in the fog, or a snowfall, or, as happened yesterday, admiring a horizon to horizon rainbow.

      • That’s what Steven Paulson (in his new book) calls “God preached vs. God not preached”.

        We can never know if the “God not preached” (in nature) is for us, or not. Since nature can turn on us in an instant and be the source of much pain, as it can give much pleasure.

    • Patrick Kyle says

      ” However, watching those around me and the family I had married into, it became obvious that their participation in the liturgy was perfunctory – a knee jerk reaction at best. There was no ardor or passion in their voices as the Word was spoken back to the Giver.”

      Be careful in your judgements of these people. Just because they don’t respond like the people you are used to being around does not mean that their faith is lukewarm or non existent. I recently visited a Lutheran church on the prairies in Montana. I just can’t imagine those weather hardened old farmers and their hardworking offspring responding with ‘ardor and passion’ to a church service, Doesn’t mean they aren’t faithful Christians. Some of these families have raised generations of children into the Christian faith. I was stunned to find out some pastors in the LCMS were fourth and fifth generation pastors.( Some of our church services can be as dry as dust.) Never heard that about our pastors in my years as an evangelical despite ‘passionate’ and ‘impactful’ worship.

      • This is an important point.

        I would be just as likely to say something like, “I attended the local evangelical mega-box and was disgusted by the fake “passion” that for some reason is highly correlated with electric guitar performance. It’s too ad they don’t have any respect or reverence for God.”

  4. Christiane says

    I was thinking about the role of sacred Scripture in the liturgy today, and it seemed to have the most important place when it was PRAYED as a part of the liturgy . . .

    the word ‘liturgy’ is not much understood by Christian people who don’t have a ‘liturgical’ form of worship,
    but these same people, when present at a liturgical service, can very easily tune in to how sacred Scripture is used, and so they, even as visitors, become a part of the faith community in the readings, if not in the sacraments.

    It is said in the Church that the sacred Scriptures are a ‘sacramental’ . . . and it’s one part of orthodox/catholic worship that any Christian person can relate to, and be a part of as a visitor or a ‘guest’.

    so ‘sursum corda’ is not something simply for the ‘initiated’, but it can invite all present to meaningfully ‘lift up their hearts’ to God in a place where sacred Scripture becomes spoken prayer in community

  5. Josh in FW says

    I owe Chaplain Mike and internetmonk.com a debt of gratitude for introducing me to Weber and many aspect the historical church such as the Church Calendar.

    Thank you for your work here.

  6. Pat McCown says

    Early Christianity didn’t have priests or preachers. They got added after about 100 AD, as a routine developed. I personally think Christianity would be better off without either fixed leaders or routines. We can read, so we don’t need professionals to read the Bible to us out loud, or “teaching” us what it means in their “humble” opinion. (I put “teaching” in parentheses because they’re not really teaching the Bible, like you would study it in a college class–it’s more of a ritual.) Preachers are mainly interested in keeping their job, maybe getting promoted to a better church. It distorts the whole teaching of Jesus to have it centered around them. And the whole idea of organized “worship” turns prayer into a kind of concert or public performance–the very thing Jesus condemned.

    • It is difficult to take such a simplistic comment seriously. The first sentence is only half correct. Paul wrote to Timothy in the NT that it was his habit to train up teachers who would then train other faithful men to teach. And not all Christians can or have been able to read, Pat. Having been raised in anti-authoritarian “priesthood of the believer” Christianity I can tell you one thing anecdotally – it was an unmitigated disaster. There is a reason denominations have such stringent requirements for ministers. To say that they “are mainly interested in” etc. etc. is completely unfair to Chaplain Mike and others who have given so selflessly for decades.

      • Most of my clergy friends in my denomination are either volunteer or part time in the ministry. And many of those who are full time are getting paid a pittance compared to how much time they put in, and they wouldn’t be able to support their families without supplementary income from a spouse working or from retirement stipends. I’m a part-time guy, myself, and could make SO much more money focusing on my day job, which is why I spent my twenties running from the call to ministry.

    • So what am I to make of this:

      Ephesians 4
      11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
      14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

  7. I was first introduced to Webber during a class on Christian Worship in my graduate studies. I think it was in my first semester of actual graduate work, as opposed to leveling courses. It took me a LONG time to finish that degree, and I was talking to some students who were taking that same class, albeit 7ish years later. They no longer were studying Webber in the class. I was very disappointed, as well as grateful that I took it at the beginning of my studies rather than at the end of them.

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